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Farming incomes plummet by 40% in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 29/01/2016

Dairy farmers protest at Stormont in July
Dairy farmers protest at Stormont in July

Farm income plunged by more than 40% in a single year in Northern Ireland, leading to warnings that the industry is facing a crisis.

Income fell from £312m to £183m between 2014 and 2015, a report said.

That was less than the total value of subsidies, which were £236m.

The biggest driver was a fall in dairy prices, which dropped by 27% to £480m.

The figures were disclosed in a report published yesterday by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Ulster Farmers' Union warned it was unlikely to get any better in the months ahead.

UFU president Ian Marshall said: "This is a real financial crisis, and it is still there in 2016."

The key points include:

  • Average farm income in 2014/15 was £24,942, but this is forecast to drop by 46% to £13,451 this year;
  • The total value of gross output for agriculture in Northern Ireland fell by 9% to £1.74bn in 2015, driven by a 13% decline in the livestock sector;
  • Dairying remained the biggest contributor, despite falling by 27%;
  • The output value of cattle was marginally higher at £394m;
  • The value of sheep-meat output decreased by 10% to £63m.
  • Pig output value fell by 15% to £113m, while the poultry meat sector dropped 6% to £244m.

The plunge in profits was so great in 2015 that farm incomes were £53m below what was received in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments.

This means farmers invested in their businesses and worked all year for less than they would have had for pocketing the CAP payment and doing nothing else.

Mr Marshall added: "These grim income figures are a body blow for farming families - but they are also a body blow for the entire Northern Ireland economy.

"Almost £130m was taken out of the rural economy.

"That is money that would have been spent locally, meaning towns and villages across Northern Ireland will have felt the impact of hard times hitting the farming community."

The reasons for the price and income collapse include a weak euro, loss of markets in Russia and supermarket price pressure.

Ulster Unionist agriculture spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson said the figures demonstrated the seriousness of the crisis.

"Very few people in Northern Ireland would be able to tolerate a 41% wage cut, but yet that is what our local farms have effectively been hit with," she said.

"The sheer scale of the collapse in farm incomes should now hopefully come as the wake-up call that DARD needs to intervene on the damaging impacts of unfair prices from processors and retailers."

Earlier this month, this newspaper reported how a farmer is receiving just 14p per kilo for his potatoes, which sell in the supermarkets for £1. A Co Armagh farmer also discovered turnips he was paid 8p for were then sold at up to 10 times that price.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said she would continue working to help farmers.

"The total income from farming figure for the industry as a whole is at a level not seen for 10 years and the farm level estimates show that while all sectors have suffered, it has been particularly difficult for dairy and pig farmers," she said.

Ms O'Neill said that while prices have been down globally, the effects of exchange rates have made the crisis all the more devastating.

"Given the continuing growth in world populations that brings increased demand for food, I remain optimistic about the long-term opportunities for our industry," she added.

"However, the current income crisis requires that we continue to work on all fronts to help farmers and I re-affirm my commitment to doing just that."

Case study: Charlie Weir

Charlie Weir operates a large dairy farm near Waringstown in Co Armagh.

Five generations of his family have worked on the farm, which has been going for more than half a century, but he fears for the future after seeing his income slashed because of plummeting milk prices.

"My father is 76 and he says he has never seen it as bad as this," Mr Weir told the Belfast Telegraph.

The Weir farm is one of the larger dairy types in Northern Ireland, milking 600 cows.

"The milk price is going to drop to 16.5p per litre for January, and the cost of production is 26p," he added.

"The whole agricultural industry in Northern Ireland is dying. In a few months' time you are going to see people bankrupt. They can't afford to pay their bills.

"If the milk price goes down to 16p a lot of men could lose their farms."

Mr Weir said the average herd size in Northern Ireland is around 100 cows. "If that farm is producing 2,500 litres a day, they will be losing £250 a day," he warned.

Belfast Telegraph

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